Over the years sustainability has graduated from its title as a ‘concept’ to a movement that’s taken every industry, sector, and country by storm. Seeping into the nuances of everyday life and urging society to be more conscious of our environmental impact — sustainability is no longer an option but a necessity to ensure a thriving future for generations to come.
And so, given the criticality of this movement and its impact on society as a whole, it’s no wonder then, that it’s made its way into the world of art, picking up steam and defining a character of its own.
French artist Paul Cézanne defined art as ‘a harmony parallel to nature’, and though his meaning may have been to draw a comparison between the man-made constructs of art as opposed to the natural elegance of creations in nature — today this sentiment takes on new meaning. Putting it into the context of the discussion at hand, art may seem to be more of a companion than an acquaintance to nature.
The symbiosis of Art and Sustainability
Art has always been known for its impeccable capability of holding up a mirror to society. Articulating the peculiarities that define the current times we’re living in or even as a crystal ball to times to come. With this innate characteristic, it only becomes more obvious that art plays its part in inciting conversations and making room for sustainability in the foundations of its framework.
The alliance between art and sustainability isn’t a new concept. Artists have been making their mark in this arena for decades, whether under the contingent of eco-artists or up-cyclers. Some of the early origins of up-cycled artworks can be dated back to the 15th century with the Japanese art of Kintsugi which uses gold to transform and mend broken objects (largely pottery) into stunning as well as reusable creations.
If we were to go further back in time, whether the drawings on ancient Egyptian tombs or the iconic creations of the renaissance period you will begin to see traces of sustainability in the very pigments used to create those artworks. Some of the world’s most legendary paintings including Raphael’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints or Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio utilise natural mineral-based pigments like Azurite and Cadmium red.
Thus bringing to light that, artists in their own way have championed the movement of sustainability — whether knowingly or unknowingly.
What is sustainable art, and what is its role and potential in introducing sustainability?
Sustainability has urged us to reevaluate the way we manufacture, consume and create art, while also providing the opportunity for artists across the board, to reconsider their approach towards their craft. Similar to the nature of this field, the concept of sustainable art can be defined or categorised in a myriad of ways. While some artists choose the medium to express their thoughts on the crisis at hand through their work, others choose to endorse the movement by imbuing natural elements into their work.
This form of art has also been a pathway for artists across the board to not just celebrate the planet we call home, but to appreciate the most popular muse that has served as an inspiration to generations of artists. And this is something you see across verticals and genres.
Sustainable Art and its Presence in Modern Times
Perhaps one of the most definitive of them all is the Land Art Movement, which in its grandiose versions doesn’t just utilise natural materials like wood, earth, and sand but in fact, intertwines them with its creation. The environment becomes the muse, subject, and canvas. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty which is a huge spiral built in the Utah desert with 5000 tons of basalt is one of the most famous examples of this craft and is the artist’s homage to the very landscape his creation was built in.
Varied dimensions of this movement can be seen across the art world. When it comes to art that carries a message or calls for change, American artist and photographer Chris Jordan’s series, Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption is a perfect example. In its shocking imagery, the series urges the human population to rethink the use of plastic and electronics which ultimately translates into the accelerated and inescapable degradation of the environment. Australian sculptor Sean Avery’s use of old CDs to create eco-friendly sculptures is yet another example of how this movement is being adapted and interpreted across mediums within this vast collective.
All in all what it means is that while the intent of sustainability in art continues to have its lingering effect, now that effect is more intentional and pronounced. Whether it’s through the usage of sustainable materials and methods or through art that inspires conversations around the movement — artists have begun creating pieces that serve as a bridge between exquisite visual displays and promoting environmentally responsible compositions.
Dr Gunjan Shrivastava, a Professional Artist, Educator, Art Critic and Co-founder of You Lead India Foundation. The views expressed are the author’s own.